It started with a picture — 2nd. Lt. Emily J.T. Perez. In her United States Military Academy photograph, she holds her feathered hat, grips her sword and smiles.
Perez had a lot to smile about. She was the first minority female command sergeant in West Point history.
And she was the first combat death from the class of 2005, also known as the class of 9/11. In 2006, a roadside bomb south of Baghdad killed her.
Then there was a PBS special I watched. The program was titled, simply, “The Marines.” It was a 90-minute program that seemed more like a recruiting film than a documentary. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so, as many of the critics who wrote to the PBS ombudsman made clear.
Still, it was instructive to someone like me, who has no grounding in military culture beyond relatives who served in World War II.
In the show’s most poignant moment, a Marine began talking of what military life meant to him. As he was speaking, his voice grew more emotional, and then suddenly he stiffened and lapsed into what sounded like a line from a canned speech on honor and virtue.
He had to, I suspect. In an instant I saw past the military trappings to what makes a soldier enlist and fight. They fight for each other, of course, but they also fight for ideas.
And for loved ones back home. On the news, I saw one mother speak of her dead son. She said that she cried before he deployed, fretting that she could no longer protect him. Her son replied that he was grown now, and it was time for him to protect her.
It’s not just men who feel drawn to a path more dangerous, but perhaps more meaningful, than civilian life. Women do too.
I saw it in the faces of two women interviewed by Dan Rather on his 2007 HDNet program “West Point at War.” Rather wanted to know what motivated these students who signed up after 9/11. They could not have assumed the war would be over when they graduated. They knew they might end up in a battlefield.
Rather featured a couple of male cadets too, but it was the women, Krysta Cass and Mary Erin Boyle, who made the strongest impression.
To the petite Boyle, Rather said, “As someone looking at you, and I mean this in no patronizing way, I look at you and I’m going to say: What a beautiful, intelligent young woman, but is she ready for combat?”
“Sir,” Boyle replied, “don’t let that fool you. I’m tough.”
Women have to be tough in today’s asymmetrical warfare, where the “support” jobs are as risky as the front lines. More women have fought and died since 9/11 than in all the wars of the previous five decades combined.
Some argue that women in the military are not adequately protected from sexual assault. The parents of Pvt. LaVena Johnson, who died in 2005, do not accept the official ruling of suicide. The Johnsons are demanding an investigation into what they believe was a rape, murder and cover-up.
Also in 2005, an attack by a suicide bomber on a cargo truck in Fallujah killed three male Marines and also took the lives of three women, “a 20-year-old who had enlisted to support her mother, a 21-year-old former cheerleader and a 43-year-old single mother on her second tour in Iraq.” Their names were Marine Cpl. Ramona M. Valdez, Lance Cpl. Holly A. Charette and Petty Officer 1st Class Regina R. Clark.
Of the 13 fatalities in Fort Hood last November, three were women: Sgt. Amy Krueger, Pvt. Francheska Velez and Lt. Col. Juanita Warman.
As we enter the ninth year of what seems to be an endless war, it’s more important than ever to be inclusive. According to a New York Times article headlined “GI Jane Breaks the Combat Barrier,” that will soon happen. Ms. Veronica Alfaro said of her time in Iraq, “I did everything there. I gunned. I drove. I ran as a truck commander. And underneath it all, I was a medic.”
Last night I tracked down one of the women on “West Point at War.” I asked Krysta Cass if her views had changed in the three years since the interview took place. Here’s what she wrote:
At the time, I was just a plebe (a freshman) and I think at that time I didn’t quite fathom what it was that I was giving up for our country. Where most freshmen worry about whether or not they’ll like their roommate, what life will be like away from home and what to major in, I had to take all of that in, plus understanding what it was to both represent West Point and become the leader that our country’s Army needed. West Point has taught me what it is to be an honorable person. It’s taught me to consider the impact of my decisions on others.
I also asked Cass about the potential for sexual assault. She replied:
There are so many measures in place to ensure that everyone, female and male, is protected from assault — both sexual and violent. I also am confident that when I graduate, the Army will be equally safe. From the various Army installations that I have visited thus far, I have seen the highest caliber of man. The people I have met are the friendliest and most caring individuals I’ve ever met. Growing up in an industrialized city, it was a huge contrast between the disgruntled neighbor I had become so accustomed to. Neighborhoods become families.
The military is changing. A look at Faces of the Fallen proves the military has made giant strides since the days of segregation. Women are still under-represented, but I believe it’s only a matter of time before they catch up.
Is Cass the voice of the new army? Ask her again in a few years, and then we’ll know. For her sake and ours, I hope so.
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]